The weirdest – but also possibly most globally consequential – story from this year’s higher education silly season comes from England. It’s about something called a “Teaching Excellence Framework”.
Now, news of nationally-specific higher education accountability mechanisms don’t often travel. Because, honestly, who cares? It’s enough trouble keeping track of accountability arrangements in one’s own country. But there are few in academia, anywhere, who have not heard about the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (or its nearly-indistinguishable predecessor, the Research Assessment Exercise). There is scarcely a living British academic who has travelled abroad in the last two decades without regaling foreign colleagues with tales of this legendary process, usually using words like “vast”, “bureaucratic”, “walls full of filing cabinets”, etc. So news that the country may be looking at creating a second such framework, related to teaching, is sure to strike many as some sort of Orwellian joke.
But no, this government is serious. It’s fair to say that the government was somewhat disappointed that its de-regulation of tuition fees did not force institutions to focus more on teaching quality. With the market having failed in that task, they seem to be retreating to good old-fashioned regulation, mixed with financial incentives.
The idea – and, at the moment, it’s still just a pretty rough idea – is rather simple: institutions should be rated on the quality of their teaching. But there are two catches: first, how do you measure it? And second, what are the rewards for doing well?
The first of these seems to be up in the air. Although the government has committed to the principle of assessing teaching at the institutional level, it genuinely seems to have not thought through in the least how it intends to achieve this. There are a lot of options here: one could simply look at use of resources and presence of qualifications: student/teacher ratios, number of profs who have actually sought teaching qualifications, etc. One could go the survey route, and ask students how they feel about teaching; one could also go the peer assessment route, and have profs rate each others’ teaching. Or there’s the “learning gain” model, used by the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which was part of the AHELO system (from which, by the way, the UK has now officially withdrawn). Of course, everyone knows that most of these measurements are either untested, or can be gamed, so there’s some fear that what the government really wants to do is to rely on – what might generously be called – lowest-common denominator statistics; namely, employment and income data.
Why might they want to do something this bell-ended, when everyone knows income is tied most closely to fields of study? Well, the clue is in the rewards. British universities have – as universities do – recently been clamouring for more money. But according to this government, there is no more money to be had; in fact, at about the same time they announced the new excellence framework, they also announced a £150 million cut to the basic teaching grant, spread over two years. So the proposed reward for good teaching is the ability to charge higher fees (so much for de-regulation… ) But as I explained a couple weeks back, raising tuition doesn’t help much because, thanks to high debt and a generous loan forgiveness system, somewhere between 60 and 80% of any extra charges at the margin will end up on the public books circa 2048, anyway.
But… if you only increase tuition at schools where income is the highest, the likelihood is that you will get a higher proportion of graduates earning enough to pay back their loans, over time. And hence less money will need to be forgiven. And hence this might not actually cost so much. Which is why there is an incentive for government to do the wrong thing here.
Still, on the off-chance the government gets this initiative at least partially right, the impact could be global. Governments all over the world are trying to get institutions to pay more attention to teaching; expect a lot of imitators if the results of this exercise look even half-promising. Stay tuned.